Why are Iraqis losing faith in government?

When last December the Iraqi government declared victory over the co-called Islamic State group (IS), many in Iraq and elsewhere spoke of a new era of peace and reconstruction. Haider al-Abadi, prime minister, attributed the defeat of IS to “unity”, and the parliament election of May 12 would, many hoped, give a new political impetus that would weaken corruption and sectarianism.

The unified Shia parliamentary block that chose Abadi as prime minister in 2014 fragmented into five lists for the poll, with that led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr taking the highest number of seats. Turnout was a record low, with 44 percent of eligible voters casting ballots, the first time since 2003 that the turnout has fallen below 60 percent. Indifference seems a more likely explanation than the tight security and new electronic system blamed by officials.

Poor polling; whom to blame

Even in the Kurdish-held north polling stations were quiet.

“In past elections there were usually long queues of voters in the morning,” Salam Abdulqadir Abdulrahman, head of the Political Science department at the University of Human Development in Suleimania, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan, told TRENDS. “Many people have lost faith in the ability of the Kurdish political parties and candidates in other electoral lists to do something good.”

Chibli Mallat, the Lebanese law professor and lawyer who played a leading role advising the Iraqi government on legislation and constitutional review from 2008 to 2010, told TRENDS that the election process showed positive and negative sides of Iraqi politics.

“This is the first time that Iraq has free elections in an atmosphere of relative security, which itself is an achievement. On the other hand, fissiparous alliances will make the appointment by the president of a PM to form a government difficult and hard to predict. Two other significant positions, first speaker, then president, are also going to be subject to complex and unprecedented horse-trading,” said Mallat.

Dwindling in dillemas

This means jockeying between and across parties based on sect and ethnicity. Some political leaders, including Abadi and Sadr, stirred nationalist Iraqi emotions in the elections. This was partly to exploit wariness of the Iranian influence that has grown since 2003. At the same time concern over regional tensions has grown with the decision of US president Donald Trump to abrogate Washington’s obligations under the 2005 pact with world powers limiting Iran’s nuclear program.

Ali Allawi, Iraqi historian and former minister, said Trump’s decision had put Iraq “at the muzzle of the gun,” suggesting conflict between the US and Iran has more effect in Iraq than anywhere else. Iraq has close relationships with both: in common parlance many Iraqis refer to Washington and Tehran as the “two uncles”.